Strong Rest of India start favourites
Of the 15 that made the Rest of India (ROI) squad last year, seven graduated to the Indian team over subsequent months and are still there or thereabouts. That should be the incentive for the Rest of India players in this year's team as they kick off the domestic season in Rajkot tomorrow with the Irani Trophy match against Ranji champions Mumbai.
The Irani Trophy is not as much a selection match as it is recognition of India's second XI, if one may use the term. The second XI for this edition is a fine blend of performers from the previous domestic season and a few who have played for India in the past few months but now find themselves out. Experience and youth are both represented.
Suresh Raina, Manoj Tiwary, Subramaniam Badrinath and Cheteshwar Pujara are four of the finest current young batsmen not in national colours. Pujara is still some way from national reckoning but for the other three it's a battle to get into the Indian middle order. On current form Badrinath looks to be the front-runner, with a double-century for India A in an unofficial Test against South Africa A in Delhi and a Man-of-the-Match showing in the one completed 50-over game after that. Mohammad Kaif, who led India A against South Africa and on a twin-tour of Zimbabwe and Kenya, counts himself in the reckoning.
Then there is Aakash Chopra, back in the fray after a prolonged absence, who will draw inspiration from the need for specialists at the top of the order on the tour of Australia later this year. The key for him will be to carry on the good form from the Kotla match against South Africa A, where he overcame three dropped catches on his way to an unbeaten double-hundred.
Hard as it is for Parthiv Patel to break into the Indian team, he has done enough with the A team - more noticeably with the bat - to keep Dinesh Karthik, the second-choice wicketkeeper, on his toes. Starting with the tour of Zimbabwe, he has scored 591 runs in five innings, with four centuries, justifying his use up the batting order.
The inconsistent Munaf Patel will be the main focus in the bowling department - his dodgy fitness levels have followed him throughout his career. For Ranadeb Bose, who toured Ireland and England but couldn't force his way into the final XI, this is the start of another first-class season where he needs to perform consistently, as he did last time with 57 Ranji wickets.
Pragyan Ojha, a left-arm spinner, and Amit Mishra, a legspinner, were too good for South Africa A in Delhi last month, but given a twinge of green on the Rajkot surface, only one of them might get a chance. Other options for bowling would be young pacers Ishant Sharma, who played one Test in Bangladesh, and Vijaykumar Yo Mahesh.
For all of ROI's strength, the Ranji champions have won the Irani Trophy 24 times, as opposed to ROI's 18. A regular team definitely has an advantage over an assembled all stars' XI. What would negate that to some extent is that the core of this ROI squad has been together from the start of the Zimbabwe tour in July.
The Mumbai team, though, is on a roll after a young new-look side thumped Karachi Urban, the Pakistan domestic champions, in Karachi to lift the Mohammad Nissar Trophy. Of the five debutants involved in the Karachi clash, two, opener Ajinkya Rahane and Prashant Naik, scored centuries and two spinners, left-armer Iqbal Abdulla and offspinner Vikrant Yeligati, shared seven wickets between them.
Is playing such a young team against such high-profile opposition a disadvantage? Captain Amol Muzumdar doesn't think so. "This means they have not seen our youngsters, while we have always watched many of their players, Mohammad Kaif for example. They don't know our strengths and weaknesses, while we know theirs," he said after the Mumbai nets. "They have played Under-19 cricket for Mumbai and would know the intensity we play our cricket with. They have come up the ranks and have done hard to come up the ranks and have been doing consistently well in Mumbai's local cricket."
Their side will be bolstered by the presence of Ajit Agarkar, who has been dropped from the Indian ODI side, and Wasim Jaffer. Youngsters Abhishek Nayar and Sahil Kukreja also showed good form in Pakistan. Ramesh Powar, who was dropped from the Indian squad, is also likely to join the side.
Kaif also refused to write off Mumbai. "They won their 37th Ranji title last year and they won in Karachi too. Definitely they are a good side. But we have been doing well too. We have lost only one game [since the start of the Zimbabwe tour], that too a one-dayer to Sri Lanka A and are doing well. The only department we need to work at is catching. We didn't take our chances in the one-dayer against South Africa."
The match will also see the debut of the video-review system for the umpires. Also present at the match will be an umpiring coach - VK Ramaswamy - who will serve the dual purpose: appraisal and guidance. While the video-setup will take care of the decision-making aspect of the umpires, the umpiring coach will appraise and guide them on the match management; communication and team work; professionalism; preparation; and fitness, diet and appearance.
The Rajkot surface, where South Africa A almost chased 291 last week, wears a grassy look but the captains think it will help the pace bowlers only early on and aid spin later in the match.
If Mumbai can bring their famous spunk then the stage is set for a clash between two teams that are on a high. ROI, on paper, are a stronger side, but Mumbai know what it takes to be champions.
Rest of India (from): Cheteshwar Pujara, Aakash Chopra, Mohammad Kaif (captain), Suresh Raina, Subramaniam Badrinath, Manoj Tiwary, Parthiv Patel (wk), Arjun Yadav, Munaf Patel, Pragyan Ojha, Randeb Bose, Amith Mishra, Ishant Sharma, Vijaykumar Yomahesh
Mumbai (from): Wasim Jaffer, Sahil Kukreja, Ajinkya Rahane, Amol Muzumdar (capt), Prashant Naik, Hiken Shah, Abhishek Nayar, Omkar Gaurav (wk), Vinayak Mane, Ajit Agarkar, Aavishkar Salvi, Iqbal Abdulla, Vikrant Yeligati, Dhaval Kulkarni, Rajesh Verma
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer with Cricinfo Magazine